Human Settlements: Types and Patterns

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We all live in clumps of houses. You may call it a village, a city or a town; all are patterns of human settlements. The study of human settlements is essential to human geography because the form of settlement in any particular region reflects a human relationship with the environment. A human settlement is defined as a region populated more or less permanently. The houses may be planned or redesigned, buildings may be remodelled, functions may change, but settlement continues in space and time. There may be some settlements which are unstable and are occupied for short periods, even a season.


It is broadly accepted that settlements can be distinguished in terms of urban and rural, but there is no agreement on what exactly represents a village or a town. Although population size is an essential criterion, it is not universally accepted since several villages in the densely populated nation of China and India have a population exceeding that of some towns of Western Europe and the United States.

At one time, people residing in villages sought agriculture or other primary activities, but today, in developed countries, large segments of urban populations prefer to reside in villages even though they work in the town.

The basic distinction between villages and towns is that in towns the main profession of the people is associated to secondary and tertiary sectors, while in the villages, people are mostly involved in primary occupations such as agriculture, fishing, mining, lumbering, animal husbandry, etc.

Difference between urban and rural based on roles is more significant even though there is no regularity in the hierarchy of the functions provided by rural and urban settlements. Petrol pumps are regarded as a lower order function in the United States while it is an urban role in India.

Even when you consider one country, rating of functions may differ according to the provincial economy. Amenities available in the villages of developed countries may be considered exceptional in villages of developing and less developed countries.


Settlements may also be categorised by their shape and patterns types. The main types classified by shape are

  • Compact or Nucleated settlements: These settlements are those in which a large number of houses are constructed very close to each other. Such settlements grow along river valleys and in fertile plains. Communities are closely knit and share common professions.
  • Dispersed Settlements: In these settlements, houses are separated far apart and often scattered with fields. A cultural characteristic such as a place of worship or a market forces the settlement to come together.

Rural Settlements

Rural settlements are most intimately and directly associated with the land. They are controlled by primary activities such as agriculture, animal husbandry, fishing etc. The establishment’s size is relatively small. Some factors influencing the location of rural settlements are:

Water Supply

Usually, rural settlements are settled near water bodies such as rivers, springs, and lakes where water can be readily obtained. Sometimes the requirement of water drives people to settle in otherwise disadvantaged places such as islands encompassed by swamps or low lying river banks. Most water-based ‘wet point’ settlements have many benefits such as water for cooking, washing and drinking. Rivers and lakes can be used to water farmland. Water bodies also have aquatic living beings like fish which can be grabbed for diet, and traversable rivers and lakes can be used for shipping.


People prefer to settle near fertile lands fit for agriculture. In Europe, villages developed up near rolling country evading swampy, low lying land while people in south-east Asia chose to reside near low lying river valleys and coastal plains befitted for wet rice cultivation. Early immigrants chose plain regions with fertile soils.


Upland which is not inclined to flooding was adopted to prevent damage to houses and loss of life. Thus, in low lying river basins, people preferred to settle on terraces and levees which are “drypoints”. In tropical countries, people mount their houses on stilts near marshy lands to defend themselves from flood, insects and animal pests.

Building Material

The availability of building supplies- wood and stone found near settlements is another benefit. Early villages were constructed in forest clearings where wood was abundant.


During the times of political uncertainty, war, the hostility of neighbouring groups, villages were established on protective hills and islands. In Nigeria, upstanding inselbergs developed as good defensive sites. In India, most of the fortifications are found on higher grounds or hills.

Planned Settlements

Sites that are not instinctively chosen by villagers themselves, planned settlements are established by governments by giving shelter, water and other infrastructural facilities on acquired lands. The plan of villagisation in Ethiopia and the canal communities in Indira Gandhi canal command area in India are some examples.

Rural Settlement Patterns

Patterns of rural settlements indicate the way the houses are placed in relation to each other. The position of the village, the neighbouring topography and terrain impact the size and shape of a village. Rural settlements may be classified based on some criteria:

  • Based on the setting: The main classes are plain villages, coastal villages, plateau villages, desert villages and forest villages.
  • Based on functions: There may be farming villages, lumberjack villages, fisherman’s villages, pastoral villages etc.
  • Based on forms or configurations of the settlements: These may be a number of geometrical patterns and shapes such as Linear, rectangular, T-shaped village, a circular star-like village, double village, cross-shaped village etc.
    • Linear pattern: In such settlements houses are established along a road, river, railway line, canal edge of a valley or along a levee.
    • Rectangular pattern: Such models of rural settlements are found in plain regions or wide intermontane valleys. The roads are rectangular and cross each other at right angles.
    • Circular pattern: Circular villages grow around lakes, tanks and sometimes the village is organised in such a way that the central part remains accessible and is used for keeping the animals to guard them against wild animals.
    • A star-like pattern: Where several roads meet, star-shaped settlements emerge by the houses built along the roads.
    • T-shaped, Cross-shaped or cruciform settlements, Y-shaped: T -shaped settlements emerge at tri-junction of the roads while Y- shaped settlements develop as the places where two roads meet on the third one and houses are built along these roads. Cruciform settlements grow on the cross-roads and houses spread in all the four directions.
    • Double village: These settlements spread on both sides of a river where there is a bridge or a ferry.